The Reputational Imperative
Nehru’s India in Territorial Conflict
Mahesh Shankar



May 27, 2014, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of India’s first prime minister, and global statesman, Jawaharlal Nehru. Along with the celebration of his exemplary legacy for independent India’s domestic and international profile, the occasion also served as a barely needed reminder of what can be considered as the abiding challenge to, and puzzle of, Nehru’s tenure: his failure to help find a satisfactory resolution to the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan and the territorial conflict with China.1

Several decades after his departure from the scene and with much ink having been spilled on the study of the two disputes, a complete picture and systematic understanding of the drivers of Nehruvian policy on territorial issues still largely eludes the scholarship. This gap is particularly glaring considering the nuanced and complex reality of India’s approach to these conflicts in their formative years, involving instances of unexpected conciliation as well as puzzling intransigence; a willingness to compromise on clearly salient territory but also to provoke losing wars over seemingly worthless ones. It is with such puzzles in Indian policymaking that this book is primarily engaged.

In explaining the Indian government’s conduct in territorial disputes in the first two decades after independence, much of the conventional wisdom emphasizes two considerations whose importance is both intuitively appealing and well established in the theoretical literature on international relations: security and nationalism. Security-driven explanations make two kinds of assertions. First, a view that has held sway for a long time contends that Nehru’s approach to international politics was singularly naive and idealist and therefore put too little stock in ensuring security, a tendency that manifested in the country’s lackadaisical approach to territorial issues. One scholar, for instance, has termed Nehru’s China policy as “based more on what is called wishful thinking than on objective conditions.”2 A second view argues that elements of realpolitik, aimed at furthering the country’s security and strategic interests within the material constraints the country faced, are basic to understanding Indian policy.3 Maxwell offers the more extreme manifestation of this argument in contending that Nehru’s government precipitated conflict in the Sino-Indian case by seeking to unilaterally impose a boundary on Beijing.4 Raghavan provides a more nuanced recent expression of this perspective in suggesting that Nehruvian strategy was based on a blend of liberal and realist ideas that he terms “liberal realism,” which “abhorred war” but “also held that conflict was an endemic feature of politics; for all national and social groups were inevitably motivated by self-interest.”5

Another set of arguments contends, in contrast, that one cannot satisfactorily explain Indian policy during this period without factoring in nationalism and domestic politics. By this account, Indian attitudes on territorial issues with Pakistan and China were determined primarily by how much symbolic-nationalist significance the leaders attached to the disputed territories. Hoffman encapsulates this thinking when he suggests in the Sino-Indian context that Indian nationalism—defined as “beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions brought forth by India’s struggle for independence . . . and shaped by the long history and culture of the Indian subcontinent”—played a “subtle and pervasive” role in shaping Nehru’s attitudes on territorial issues.6 This logic also postulates that decision making at crucial junctures was largely hostage to the pressures and constraints imposed on the prime minister by domestic public opinion, the political opposition, and from within Nehru’s Congress Party itself. Domestic political imperatives, in other words, reign supreme in this telling of the story.

That both of these claims have found traction in accounts of Indian policy is not surprising. On Kashmir, a strong case can be made that the land holds great value for both contestants from security and nationalist standpoints. In security terms, the vital geostrategic position of state was always apparent, located as it is at the apex of the Indian subcontinent, historically buffering India from threats emanating from Russia, China, and Afghanistan.7 Add to this the presence within the territory of the headwaters of three major rivers that constitute the lifeline of particularly Pakistan’s agricultural economy, and it is clear why possession of the territory has seemed immensely advantageous to both sides. It is the symbolic-nationalist value of the state, however, that many argue is even more salient to understanding the conflict. Kashmir, in this view, embodies the clash of contested nationalisms that led to the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in the first place, with secular India pitted against Pakistan, the self-anointed home of the Muslims of the region.8 As one scholar has put it, it is this ideational and ideological conflict that has been the “underlying issue” in the dispute because each state has been “keenly aware of the ideological significance of Kashmir and most unwilling to concede it to the other as this would undermine its own ideological legitimacy.”9 Another observer has neatly characterized Kashmir in the same vein as a “zero-sum test for each state’s legitimizing ideology.”10

In the Sino-Indian case, similarly, security and nationalism have seemed ready and persuasive explanations for India’s conduct. While critics attribute the eventual outcome—India’s ignominious defeat in the 1962 war—to Nehru’s lack of strategic nous throughout the entire period, others see security motives as driving New Delhi’s intransigent posture in the lead-up to war. Most accounts specifically attribute, for instance, India’s interest in maintaining the McMahon Line frontier in the eastern sector to the crucial importance of holding the territory below that line to preserving the security of the entire Indian northeast from a potential Chinese threat. Other influential accounts have given privilege of place to nationalism and domestic politics in explaining Nehru’s major decisions. These latter works have contended that a strong sense of nationalism, either in the form of the Indian leaders’ own ideas and beliefs—for Hoffman about India’s historical borders; for Miller the sense of postcolonial victimhood—or as a result of domestic political pressures due to an aggravated body politic, primarily determined Nehru’s intransigence on the territorial issue.11


Similar issues confront any explanation relying on salience to account for India’s actions in the Sino-Indian dispute. In that case, it is amply apparent from internal documents that Nehru and his officials were very clear from early on that the disputed territory in the western sector was of little importance to India in strategic, economic, or nationalist terms. What is more, Indian officials were also persuaded for much of this period that even on legal grounds, the government’s claims to territory in the region lacked any strong standing. It was the territory in the east that they viewed as crucial to the security of the entire Indian northeast and where India’s legal claims were understood to be more ironclad.12 Given these facts, it would be reasonable to expect the Indian government to have been open to making concessions in the western sector in exchange for the Chinese giving up their claims in the far more valuable eastern sector. Yet it was precisely such a solution that Nehru rejected in talks with Zhou Enlai in New Delhi in April 1960.

In each of these cases, then (as well as in the Chinese approach to the Sino-Indian dispute discussed as an extension to this work in chapter 7), not only are the conventional security and nationalist perspectives inadequate as an explanation, but we also see another theoretically puzzling phenomenon: of strong states being more conciliatory than necessary and weaker states adopting more intransigent positions than seems wise. This work seeks to fill these theoretical and empirical gaps in our understanding of the nuances of Indian policy in the country’s major territorial disputes under its first prime minister.

Important as these insights are to understanding Indian behavior during this period, they leave some crucial empirical puzzles underexplained. For example, if the salience or value of the territory was so central to the Nehru government’s positions, it is not clear why, on the highly salient territory of Kashmir, leaders were willing to make significant concessions to Pakistan from even before partition and until late in 1953. Indeed, soon after the tribal invasion from Pakistan in 1947, the Indian government acquiesced to holding a plebiscite in the state, and it maintained that commitment even when it had become clear to Nehru himself that India was certain to lose such a vote. Only in 1954 did the Indian prime minister renege from that position to asserting that Kashmir’s accession to India was complete and nonnegotiable with either Pakistan or the Kashmiri populace. A focus on salience alone misses out on these crucial nuances in the empirics of the case and provides little explanation for why Nehru was open to a plebiscite in the first place, why a plebiscite was then never held, and, finally, why New Delhi withdrew that offer in 1954.

Reputation, Compromise, and Conflict in Territorial Disputes

This book makes a novel theoretical argument to account for the puzzling aspects of decisions such as those made by India under Nehru. It suggests that New Delhi’s approach to territorial disputes during this period can be explained best by a reputational logic, termed the reputational imperative. This framework broadly suggests that when leaders are faced with the costs of territorial disputes, their decisions to compromise or be intransigent on their claims are in many cases driven by reputational considerations, that is, decision makers’ assessments of what kind of reputations particular actions are likely to engender from immediate adversaries and interested third-party audiences. In essence, compromise or intransigence becomes less or more likely depending on the perceived reputational costs or benefits of either option.

That reputation matters is itself not a particularly new insight. The idea has a rich pedigree in both the scholarship on international relations14 and recent work on territorial conflict.15 It is, after all, as Schelling famously observed “one of the few things worth fighting over,”16 a feeling seemingly shared by policymakers who have often resorted to just this logic to support monumental decisions. This book, however, offers what I suggest is a distinct and more nuanced take on reputation and how it matters to state conduct in territorial disputes. It assumes a more complex portfolio of reputations—reputations of not just resolve and weakness but also those of generosity and being a bully—that states seek to pursue and avoid and identifies a mechanism, the bargaining context, to help specify the reputational calculus driving state behavior.

Briefly, I argue that the reputational calculus of decision makers is shaped essentially by the bargaining context, which in turn is constituted of a leader’s perceptions about the contestants’ relative bargaining strength and the history of an adversary’s bargaining tactics. The theoretical framework suggests, counterintuitively, that where bargaining context is favorable, state leaders are likely to find it easier to make concessions on their claims in the belief that compromise from a position of strength is more likely to carry reputational benefits (of appearing generous) rather than costs (of appearing weak), whereas intransigence, by conveying a tendency to bully and coerce, might generate unnecessary reputational costs. Similarly, the more unfavorable the bargaining context is, the more likely state leaders are to remain firm in the fear that compromise in the face of an adversary’s strength or coercion (or both) will convey weakness rather than generosity, encouraging further challenges and threats, whereas intransigence in the same situation will serve to establish resolve and hence aid deterrence and compellence.

Using this theoretical framework, developed in the next chapter, the book demonstrates that Indian decision making on territorial disputes during the Nehru era was influenced to a significant degree by precisely such considerations. Where compromise was viewed as carrying reputational costs—of India appearing weak—and intransigence to convey the positive impression of resolve, Indian decision makers chose to remain firm regardless of the salience of the territory. This was most clearly the case in the Sino-Indian dispute where despite the low value attached to a significant portion of the disputed lands, but owing to weaker bargaining power, Nehru decided to stand firm for fear that any concessions would convey weakness and invite greater challenges from Beijing.

By contrast, to the extent that the Indian prime minister believed making concessions would not signal weakness but instead perhaps convey Indian generosity, and at the least preserve any reputation his government had for cooperation at the international level, New Delhi was willing to make concessions on even clearly salient territory. This was the case with Kashmir and the offer of the plebiscite. Only on the issue of the conditions under which the plebiscite could be conducted did Nehru’s government adopt a firm stance, and that again was driven in major part by a fear that not imposing such conditions risked conveying weakness in the face of the fact that Pakistan’s initial aggression had not been punished and reversed. By 1954, the entire bargaining context surrounding the dispute was perceived to have been radically transformed for India due to the signing of the US-Pakistan security pact, changing the reputational calculus in New Delhi, and leading Nehru to deepen Indian intransigence over Kashmir by withdrawing the plebiscite offer altogether.

None of this is to say that other considerations were unimportant in these cases. In Kashmir for instance, as the case study acknowledges, military-strategic considerations were equally central to the sorts of preconditions Nehru attached to the conduct of a plebiscite, conditions that proved unacceptable to Pakistan. Nevertheless, what this book does demonstrate is that reputational considerations are independently significant in understanding the Indian government’s decisions at crucial junctures of these disputes, decisions that in some instances make little sense otherwise.

Methodological Note and Overview

Other security- and power-based logics are similarly unsatisfactory. If it is true, on the one hand, that Nehru’s idealism precluded strategic thought and made India unnecessarily accommodative, it is difficult to explain the many instances in these cases where the Indian government assumed uncharacteristically tough stances. On the other hand, to the extent that it has been argued that strategic thinking did indeed shape New Delhi’s conduct, including its intransigence, it is unclear why the Nehru government, counterintuitive to standard bargaining expectations, seemed most open to concessions on clearly salient territory in Kashmir during times of its greatest relative military strength in relation to Pakistan. The realpolitik logic is arguably even more problematic when it comes to the Sino-Indian conflict. There, it bumps up against the puzzle of why India chose the path of intransigence in a context where it was amply clear to both military and political leaders in the country well before the war itself that the Indian army was woefully unprepared for any military confrontation with China.13 That New Delhi chose to reject Zhou’s offer of compromise and instead pursued a risky political path despite such obvious military debilities seems unfathomable from a security-seeking standpoint.

Because this book is driven primarily by empirical puzzles, the cases do pick themselves. Nevertheless, there are a few more reasons why this “small-n” research design focused on Indian decision making in the Kashmir and Sino-Indian dispute in the Nehru period recommends itself from a methodological perspective. First, it fills a significant lacuna in the literature on India’s territorial disputes in that, barring the rare notable exception,17 most works focus either on only one or the other dispute or address singular developments within them. This work, in contrast, offers a systematic explanation for variations in Indian policy over the most formative years of both disputes. In doing so, it offers a more general story and explanation for Indian conduct than almost any other previous work has done.

Second, the cases can be considered as hard ones for the theory I offer in this work. To the extent that there is a claim to be made that the territories in contention in both disputes held some undoubted importance for the postindependence Indian leadership, and considering the recurrent crises and wars that characterized the period, we can reasonably expect to see salience and military-strategic considerations dominating any explanation of Indian policy and thereby crowding out the reputational logic offered in this book. If, however, we see reputational concerns playing a significant and independent role in Indian decision making despite the presence of these other factors, and sometimes even outexplain the alternatives, that would suggest that the theory has passed a particularly demanding test. Finally, a brief exploratory study towards the end of the book of Chinese behavior in its territorial dispute with India (and others) during the same period allows for a plausibility probe of the generalizability of the argument beyond just Nehru’s India.

In the following chapters, I test the theoretical argument and explain the empirical puzzles through in-depth case studies based on extensive use of primary sources gathered from both previously published work and till recently untapped archival material in India. The analysis of the Sino-Indian dispute, for instance, has benefited from access to the papers of Subimal Dutt and P. N. Haksar, both of which provide some new insight into Indian thinking leading to the war of 1962. In addition, this book exploits various other sources, including oral histories, memoirs of senior functionaries and participants in Indian decision making, and some excellent recent scholarship on Nehru era foreign policy.

Chapter 2 begins by detailing the reputational framework that undergirds this study. It makes a case for why such a logic should be considered independently important in thinking about state behavior, identifies gaps in the international relations literature on reputation, and offers a modified reputational imperative framework.

The following two chapters investigate Indian policymaking in the Kashmir dispute. Chapter 3 begins by providing background to the Kashmir dispute and then goes on to identify the prominent puzzles from this case. Empirically, it focuses on establishing the fact that Nehru was indeed willing to make significant concessions on Kashmir from very early on despite the high salience of the territory and was, contrary to the claims of critics, sincere about the plebiscite offer until 1954. This chapter details how while ideological and material-strategic factors do matter in accounting for India’s early conciliatory policy, reputational considerations seemed to assume increasing importance in New Delhi’s thinking with the passage of time, even as the other explanations become less persuasive.

Chapter 4 then uses the theoretical argument to explain two further puzzles. The first is why, having offered a plebiscite, Nehru insisted on strict preconditions regarding the military and administrative situation in the state prior to holding such a vote, preconditions that ultimately proved unacceptable to Pakistan. The second is why, in 1954, having been open to a plebiscite for so long, Nehru eventually withdrew the offer and adopted a significantly more intransigent position on Kashmir by asserting that the dispute could now be settled only in accordance with the status quo. As this chapter suggests again, military-strategic considerations were certainly not negligible in Nehru’s calculus, yet reputational factors played an equally significant and independent role in Indian policy.

Chapters 5 and 6 turn to the Nehru government’s policies in the territorial dispute with China. Chapter 5 provides an introduction and background to the dispute and a discussion of the early bases (from 1947 to around 1955) of Indian policymaking in this arena. It shows how, despite the dormancy of the dispute during this period, the underpinnings of India’s later intransigence were present all along. While pursuing quintessentially accommodative policies with Beijing overall, Nehru made a conscious decision on the territorial issue from very early on to adopt a posture of firmness. He did this partly for strategic reasons but more clearly for fear of the reputational costs of making concessions to an already stronger China.

These reputational dynamics became even more pronounced after 1957 and, as chapter 6 elucidates, played out more crucially in two momentous decisions. This chapter therefore seeks to answer two major questions. First, why did the Nehru government reject Zhou Enlai’s offer in 1960, which would have settled the border in a manner that would have left both sides with territory of greatest salience to them and involved India’s giving up territory of ostensibly little value? The second is that having surprisingly rejected the package offer, why did the Indian government pursue a militarily risky policy in late 1961, despite being well aware that its army was little match for Chinese forces in the frontier regions?

Chapter 7 extends the logic of this book’s argument beyond India by looking at Chinese decision making in its territorial dispute with India. The focus is on demonstrating the utility of the reputational argument offered here to explain, first, the surprisingly large concessions Beijing was willing to make as part of the 1960 offer by Zhou; and, second, having decided to be conciliatory, Beijing’s equally surprising decision to then initiate war in 1962, only to unilaterally withdraw from most of the occupied territory after a brief and devastating offensive. In accounting for these decisions, this chapter also more briefly connects the Sino-Indian case to China’s other compromises to its smaller neighbors in the region.

The conclusion in chapter 8 derives implications from this work for the study of the role of reputation in international relations, including the question that this work has been less concerned about: whether reputations actually form in the manner that states expect. It also assesses the importance of the findings for the broader literature on territorial disputes, as well as enduring rivalries. Finally, the chapter considers the lessons to be drawn for the contemporary state and future prospects of the Kashmir and Sino-Indian disputes, as well as in understanding India’s conduct on other contentious security issues, including its internal territorial challenges of separatism and secessionism. It suggests that there may be great value in giving more attention to the reputational imperative in analyses of the foreign and security policies of countries such as India and China, especially as they develop greater prominence and interests on the global stage with their impending rise toward the role and status of global powers.


1. As one scholar encapsulates this thinking, “Nehru has been blamed for leaving behind a legacy of conflict with Pakistan (as well as China). On that last count alone, some examiners might want to mark him with a failing grade in his chosen vocation of making a foreign policy of peace for India!” Surjit Mansingh, “Nehru and Pakistan,” in Legacy of Nehru: A Centennial Celebration, ed. D. R. SarDesai and Anand Mohan (Springfield, VA: Nataraj Books, 1992), 310.

2. Prithwis Chandra Chakravarti, India’s China Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962). Jaswant Singh speaks of Nehru’s “idealistic romanticism” in his Defending India (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), 34; Shashi Tharoor has similarly characterized Nehru’s policy as a “messianic utopianism” in his Reasons of State: Political Development and India’s Foreign Policy Under Indira Gandhi, 1966–1977 (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1982), 26. See also David Malone, Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy (London: Oxford University Press, 2011), 154–156.

3. The finest recent exposition of such an argument can be found in Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Another work that points to elements of realpolitik in Indian foreign and security policy under Nehru is Bharat Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002).

4. Neville Maxwell, India’s China War (London: Cape, 1972). In the context of Pakistan, Burke similarly described Nehru as unreasonable, “making it difficult to negotiate any concrete dispute with him on a give and take basis.” S. M. Burke, Mainsprings of Indian and Pakistani Foreign Policies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974), 81.

5. Raghavan, War and Peace, 14.

6. Steven A. Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 7. For Hoffman’s discussion of the roots of Indian nationalism with regard to the border dispute, see pp. 25–28.

7. Victoria Schofield, Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unfinished War (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000), 10.

8. Sumit Ganguly, The Origins of War in South Asia: The Indo-Pakistani Conflicts Since 1947 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994); Ashutosh Varshney, “India, Pakistan, and Kashmir: Antinomies of Nationalism,” Asian Survey 31, no. 11 (1991): 997–1007.

9. Ganguly, The Origins of War, 19.

10. Devin T. Hagerty, The Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: Lessons from South Asia (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 67.

11. Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis; Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Wronged by Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013)

12. John W. Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 91–100.

13. Report by Lt. Gen. T. B. Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Premindra Singh Bhagat (Brooks-Bhagat Report), part I, accessed August 1, 2017, at

14. The list of publications dealing with reputation in international relations is long, and indeed the concept can be traced as far back as Thucydides’ treatment of the Peloponnesian War: Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner and M. I. Finley (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972). A few of the more prominent contemporary books include Robert Jervis, Richard Ned Lebow, and Janice Gross Stein, Psychology and Deterrence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985); Robert Powell, Nuclear Deterrence Theory: The Search for Credibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Robert Jervis, The Logic of Images in International Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989); Jonathan Mercer, Reputation and International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996); Daryl G. Press, Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); Joshua D. Kertzer, Resolve in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016); Frank P. Harvey and John Mitton, Fighting for Credibility: US Reputation and International Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017). Prominent journal articles engaged with the issue have been even more numerous.

15. Barbara F. Walter, Reputation and Civil War: Why Separatist Conflicts Are So Violent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), “Building Reputation: Why Governments Fight Some Separatists But Not Others,” American Journal of Political Science 50, no. 2 (2006): 313–330, and “Explaining the Intractability of Territorial Conflict,” International Studies Review 4, no. 4 (2003): 137–153; Monica Duffy Toft, The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), and “Indivisible Territory, Geographic Concentration, and Ethnic War,” Security Studies 12, no. 2 (2002): 82–119.

16. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 124.

17. Raghavan’s War and Peace is the most recent one.